Advent is upon us. As impatient as I am for Christmas (even though it’s my holiday to work this year), I cannot imagine how impatient people were for the coming of Christ. Ruler after king after emperor took over the country. Difficult after hardship after suffering. Oh, how the people must have ached for a savior.
Then, “in the days of King Herod, King of Judea” (Luke 1:5) the angel Gabriel steps onto the scene (quite literally). He joyfully announces to two people about the coming birth of two very important people for God’s plan of salvation: Jesus and John the Baptist.
Gabriel appears to Mary and Zechariah, husband of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. Each one saw the angel and trembled. Each one was told not to fear by the angel Gabriel and that the Lord had chosen them, heard them, loved them. Each one was foretold of a baby boy. Each one asked, “How?”
Yet one ends up mute until the boy is named and the other is blessed, praised, and adored. How?
Zechariah, in addition to being the husband of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, is a priest of the division of Abijah (Luke 1:5). At this time, the priests of the temple were divided into 24 different divisions that served the people in one week courses twice a year. Zechariah was chosen by lots to offer incense, a rare opportunity that usually came a handful of times during a priest’s life (Luke 1:8-9, here).
God chose this rare opportunity to reveal His plan to Zechariah. As Luke recounts,
“Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering, the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense.”
Zechariah rightly freaks out. Luke more eloquently describes his reaction as “Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him” (Luke 1:12).
The angel comforts him, saying,
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”
Whoa, baby! That’s a prophecy!
Let’s see how Mary’s story compares.
Mary is a virgin married to a local carpenter named Joseph and lives in a small town called Nazareth. I imagine she is just going about her day life when an unnamed angel pops in and says,
“Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Luke eloquently describes her reaction as “But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). Greatly troubled is right. Hail is the same word in Greek – Χαῖρε (Chaire) – used to greet Jesus. “Favored one” doesn’t even begin to cover the Greek. The Greek word the angel uses to greet Mary is κεχαριτωμένη (Kecharitomene), which most properly translated is “completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace” (according to Blass and DeBrunne).
Well, that’s a greeting! I’d be troubled if someone greeted me like that, mostly because I’d think they’re insane. The angel comforts her, saying,
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Whoa, baby! As if that greeting could not be topped, Gabriel drops quite the prophecy!
Can you imagine being either Zechariah or Mary? You’re going about your daily life, and bam! An angel shows up, telling you all these amazing things that are going to happen, that the Lord has heard your prayers, favors you among all His beloved, and has a unique plan for your child.
What do you say? Can you believe it, or do you doubt? How do you answer?
Zechariah’s how was essentially a question of doubt, a demand for proof. He asks,
“How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
“How shall I know this?” Zechariah, please. As much as John the Baptist’s birth announcement is unique, it’s not. You’re special because you’re a beloved child of God, blah, blah, blah. But come on, buddy. The whole “I’ll give these barren people a son that will change the course of history” is totally God’s M.O.
Case in point:
- Abraham and Sarah before the birth of Isaac in Genesis 17
- Isaac and Rebekah before the birth of Esau and Jacob in Genesis 25
- Jacob and Rachel before the birth of Joseph in Genesis 30
- Manoah and his wife before the birth of Sampson in Judges 13
- Elkanah and Hannah before the birth of Samuel in 1 Samuel 1
Seriously, Zechariah, the first three generations of your religion had the whole “barren and blessed with a child” M.O. Surely, you had to know that. Yet, even with proof of God’s previous miracles so deeply ingrained into his spirituality, Zechariah doubted.
I mean, I’ll give Abraham and Sarah room for incredulous doubt. God tells Abraham he’ll have a child when his wife is ninety and he’s ninety three. Abraham laughs, and then God kindly informs Abraham to circumcise himself as a covenant agreement. That man must have really wanted a son to agree to that. Next chapter, some visitors come and tell Abraham he’ll have a son when they visit next year. Sarah hears it and laughs since she is clearly post menopausal (Genesis 18:11). God had the final laugh, because Sarah got pregnant. That’s why Isaac means laughed, and the two share the same Hebrew word, “yishaq.”
Zechariah, the angel reports to you that God is making no demands of you and wants to bless you after all these years. A simple, “that’s awesome” would suffice. Yet, he asked for more proof when in doubt he asked, “how shall I know this?”
The angel answers,
“I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”
Gabriel is not a new figure. He first appears in the Bible to the prophet Daniel when he prophesies (with perfect accuracy) the end of Babylonian exile and re-building of the temple in Jerusalem.
Gabriel answers his question, and Zechariah probably feels like a fool. Oh, so you’re the same guy that accurately prophesied to Daniel… Yeah, I’d be struck dumb at that too, mute or not.
Zechariah find himself mute, yet remains faithful. Keeping with his description of holiness, he completes his priestly duties before returning home to his wife (Luke 1:22-23).
“How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
Unlike Zechariah who doubted the Lord’s power, Mary pondered how the Lord wanted her to act, how to do His will most faithfully. She obviously knows how babies are made, so she’s essentially asking if the Lord wants her to violate her vow to Him.
“The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Instead of a child coming from the gift of a father, Gabriel tells Mary her Son, the Son of God, will come from the gift of the Holy Spirit. Gabriel essentially tells Mary, no, you do not have to violate your vow to God for His promise to be fulfilled. He will bless you.
Mary accepts, with the beautiful words of the Fiat:
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
“Handmaid” doesn’t even begin to cover the Greek. Mary uses the word δούλη (doule) meaning “female slave” or “bondmaid” in a literal sense. In a metaphorical sense, δούλη means “one who gives himself up wholly to another’s will.”
At this moment, at this yes, at this beautiful moment of absolute surrender, Mary gives herself up wholly to the will of God. Catholic tradition says she conceived Jesus at this moment. (CCC 494). Regardless, Mary accepts His prophecy without a need for proof, knowing He has faithfully delivered on His earlier promises and prophecies, trusting He will deliver His promises to her as well.
As Mary said to her cousin Elizabeth, both of them pregnant with the children Gabriel prophesied,
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Mary’s trust in the Lord was immediately perfect. Zechariah’s perfect trust took more time. It took seeing Gabriel. It took being struck mute. It took seeing Elizabeth pregnant. It took the birth of his son. It took his neighbors pestering Elizabeth to name their son Zechariah.
Finally, Zechariah had the chance to trust, to name his son as Gabriel commanded, in perfect trust and hope that his son would fulfill the prophecy. As Luke wrote,
“…they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.”
I think as his mouth was opened, his heart was opened. The dark doubts that plagued him could no longer live in the light of God’s perfectly fulfilled promise. I cannot imagine the joy of Zechariah that day. Not only was his son circumsized and named, but his tongue and heart were once again free to praise the Lord for His goodness.
He too praised God, saying,
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people. He has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant, even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old: salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to show mercy to our fathers and to be mindful of his holy covenant and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father, and to grant us that, rescued from the hand of enemies, without fear we might worship him in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Yes, Zechariah’s trust was imperfect, but it was well earned by the Father. The Lord earned Zechariah’s trust through everything Zechairah had heard in the lives of others, seen in the example of Mary when she stayed with them, and experienced in his own life. Though he could not know precisely how his son John would fulfill the prophecy of the angel, the burden of proof showed that God infinitely fulfills his promises. Clearly, by the Canticle of Zechariah, he chose to believe and trust in God’s promises to him and his son, John.
I think we all have a lot of Zechariah in us. As much as we aim for the perfectly unwavering trust of Mary, I know I have about the trust level of Zechariah. I want proof. I want answers. I want details. I want to know as Zechariah did, “How shall I know this?”
Tradition holds that Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in Hebron, one of the oldest continually occupied settlements in the world. Hebron is where Abraham purchased his burial plot (Genesis 23), where he and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are buried. David was anointed King of all of Israel after the death of King Saul at Hebron (II Samuel 2). Great things had happened in Hebron before, and through the miraculous birth of John, great things would continue to happen there.
Zechariah could know what would happen because of where he was. Too, he could know what would happen because of who God is.
As the Lord frequently answered his prophets in the Old Testament, He answers our questions of doubt, our demands for proof with simply who He is: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
He is the God of Abraham, who He led safely to a foreign place, who gave him a son in old age, who made him of a father of innumerable spiritual and biological descendants.
He is the God of Isaac, who led him to the love of his life, who gave him twin boys to after his wife battled infertility, who let him live to see his sons reconcile with one another.
He is the God of Jacob, who led him into the desert to wrestle with his conscience, who allowed him to see himself hurt by his own tricks, who blessed him with many sons, who let him live to see his beloved son Joseph alive, save the nation, and reconcile with his brothers.
Our God is a God of miracles. Our God is a God of fulfilled promises. Our God provides and follows through. It may take rendering us mute for us to finally observe His graces, but God will always prove He is trustworthy by the very nature of who He is, no matter how we initially respond to His call. As Mary shows us, trusting and following the will of the Father will fill us with great joy.